Remembering Larry Doby's dignity, courage
Baseball and American society are better because of Hall of Famer Larry Doby, and I will miss him.
When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld affirmative action in university admissions this week, I thought of baseball -- and the legacy of Larry Doby. I attended Doby's memorial service in Montclair, N.J. on Monday (he died the previous Wednesday at the age of 78).
Jackie Robinson and Doby integrated baseball in 1947. Doby was the first African-American to play in the American League, joining the Cleveland Indians on July 5, 1947. Eleven weeks earlier Robinson became the first to break the color barrier in the major leagues, with the National League's Brooklyn Dodgers.
At Doby's memorial service, I listened to speaker after speaker talk about how Doby had no animosity or bitterness about what he had to suffer as the first African-American in the American League.
Numerous Hall of Famers, dignitaries and celebrities attended the service, including Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto, Len Coleman and Don Baylor, MLB president Bob Dupuy and New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey.
I spoke at the memorial service about my conversations with Doby over the years, explaining how my fellow Hall of Famer never focused on the negative. Doby preferred to talk about the positive. For instance, the day he was introduced to his Cleveland teammates, most ignored him and would not shake his hand. But he never told me who they were. I believe this was partly because some of those players were also in the Hall of Fame.
But he did tell me about Joe Gordon and always spoke highly of him. Doby told me that the first day he went on the field to warm up with the Indians, no one would throw with him. But Gordon stepped up and said, "I'll play catch with you." Doby spoke in glowing terms about how much that meant to him. Because Gordon was an All-Star, many of Doby's teammates fell in line after that.
As Pee Wee Reese befriended Jackie Robinson, so Joe Gordon befriended Larry Doby. Gordon made Doby's transition from the Negro Leagues easier.
Larry Not Jealous Of Jackie
There have been innuendos and reports that Doby was jealous of the attention Jackie Robinson received over the years as the first black to break baseball's color line. Based on my many conversations with him, nothing could be further from the truth. Doby told me that Robinson was his hero. He was glad to see Robinson receive the adulation he deserved after his trials as the first to integrate baseball.
I'm sure Doby felt he was underappreciated, and it's true that he didn't get the credit he should have gotten. But he never expressed animosity about it. I talked with him often, and he always praised Jackie. Doby and I were close enough friends that if there were any hard feelings, he would have told me.
Moreover, Robinson was proud of Doby and his accomplishments. Jackie broke the color barrier with dignity and grace, but if those who followed him hadn't been able to handle it, African-Americans in baseball would have been back at square one. So Robinson was proud of Doby and of his Dodger teammates, Newcombe and Campanella.
Anyone who knew Larry knew that he admired Robinson and was never jealous of the attention Robinson received.
Meanwhile, neither he nor Jackie got the credit they deserved for their tremendous playing ability. Yes, Jackie was a pioneer, but fans forget that he was a National League MVP. And they forget that Larry led the AL in home runs and RBI. These men are remembered for breaking the color barrier, but they're also in the Hall of Fame as players.
I've said this about Jackie, and it's the same for Larry: We'll never know how great he could have been if he hadn't been forced to endure his unique crucible. He played under a different type of pressure than me and my contemporaries. Certainly, both would have been better players, but how much better? We'll never know.
Ted Made Hall Possible For Negro Leaguers
Going back to the affirmative action issue: When I think of affirmative action and baseball, I also think of Ted Williams, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1966. In his induction speech, Williams brought the Negro Leagues to the forefront, saying that Negro League players should be in the Hall of Fame. That began the election of Negro League players into the Hall -- stars like Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige and many others.
At his induction, Williams said that you can't consider yourself a great player unless you play against all the great players. Williams wanted equal treatment for the many talented players who never had the opportunity to play in the majors due to baseball's color line. That injustice could not be remedied, but he wanted Negro League players to have an equal opportunity at the Hall of Fame.
By the way, I read recently that Williams would give Doby batting tips and talk with him freely. But I also read in USA Today that Joe DiMaggio never spoke with Doby. That surprised me, because like Ted Williams, DiMaggio was from the West Coast, a more open-minded atmosphere for race relations than the South. If that's true, it could be that Joe was just being Joe (he was known for keeping to himself). I know that I always had great conversations and great rapport with DiMaggio. It never appeared to me that he had any issues with African-Americans.
Larry Doby was a true pioneer. Baseball and American society are better because of Doby, and we will miss him.
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An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back World Series with the Reds. He contributes a weekly column to ESPN.com.